I’ve finished reading John Le Carré: the biography, by Adam Sisman, a hugely enjoyable tour de force which has been justly praised by everyone who’s reviewed it. My only reservation is that it’s ‘official’, meaning that Le Carré co-operated with Sisman throughout – a huge advantage, but tempered by the fact that Sisman is therefore not always able to explore certain aspects of Le Carré’s life fully. For example, I’d like to know more about his relationships with women (the book goes into detail about his first wife only, now deceased); more about what other people – siblings, children, friends, publishers – thought or think about him; and, of course, more about his life as a spy. Sisman himself is not entirely convinced by Le Carré’s stated reasons for his reticence about the last of these.
However, Sisman makes it clear in his introduction that, although he and Le Carré enjoyed a mutually respectful professional relationship while the research for the biography was in progress, he didn’t allow himself to be tucked into Le Carré’s pocket. His version of what took place during certain key events in the author’s life (based on painstaking assembly of the facts) often differs markedly from Le Carré’s. This is fascinating, because usually these are also events that have been fictionalised to create important scenes in the novels. Sisman suggests that, over time, Le Carré has conflated his recollection of the actual event with the fictionalised account – which is even more likely in the many instances when he’s created different versions of the same event in several different novels.
This made me think about the constant overlap, and inevitable tension, between fact and fiction. We do always want to know ‘what really happened’: it’s a fundamental trait, part of the curiosity that makes humans the most adventurous and experimental of all primates. But can we ever achieve this knowledge? Does it even exist? It’s the continuing quest of the historian, his or her holy grail, and one that’s bound, however meticulous the research, to result ultimately in failure. The many versions of the Battle of the Somme that have been published this year offer a vivid example.
As a crime writer, I’ve often been intrigued by the different versions of the truth that are presented in courts of law. For example, based on exactly the same set of evidence, Oscar Pistorius was convicted of ‘culpable manslaughter’ by one judge and homicide by another. O.J. Simpson made a histrionic display of not being able to fit on to his hand a bloodstained leather glove left at the scene of his wife’s murder. It was pure courtroom theatre, but enough to introduce ‘reasonable doubt’ into the minds of the jury at his criminal trial, so they found him not guilty; however, he lost a civil court case in which he was accused of the same crime.
Even trickier than facts that rely on interpretation are ‘facts’ that may or may not be the result of distorted memory or belief. Recently, I’ve read several accounts of the Jeremy Bamber murders that took place thirty years ago. Bamber, who is one of a handful of convicted murderers serving a whole-life tariff and who has been told that for him life imprisonment literally means staying in prison until he dies, was accused and found guilty of murdering his adoptive parents and sister and her two twin sons in order to inherit the family wealth. Bamber has always protested his innocence; he’s set up a website that gives his version of events and has quite a large number of supporters who believe him. Having studied these accounts, written from all possible points of view, my own conclusion is that it’s the balance of probability that Bamber did commit the murders. What’s less clear is whether he himself knows this, or whether he either killed his relatives while experiencing a ‘fugue’ and has no recollection of their murders, or perhaps has been proclaiming his innocence for so long that he now believes it himself. This may sound far-fetched, but there is something very odd about his case.
Points of view are slippery things. As a child, I looked up to my paternal grandmother, a petite and elegant lady who kept house for my great-uncle, the youngest of her four brothers. Unlike my other grandmother, she was very up-to-date and well-informed, not just about current affairs, but about the fashions and music of the sixties that interested me. She went out to work, she dressed in smart clothes and she was always ready with good advice, but only when asked. I thought she was just about the perfect role model. However, I noticed that her brothers often spoke to her quite condescendingly. There seemed never to have been any question that she would take the entire responsibility of caring for, first of all, her elderly mother and then her youngest brother, who was physically disabled. At the time, I thought this was just another example of the male chauvinism that was rife in my family, but much later I discovered that she’d been ‘a bit of a goer’ in her youth. They’d given her ‘respectability’, but it seems the debt was not one that could ever be repaid. Their view of her was totally at variance with my own. Similarly, when my parents’ marriage disintegrated, I thought I understood chapter and verse exactly why, having been the reluctant occupier of a ringside seat, but over the many years that have since passed I’ve come to realise that I saw those events entirely from my mother’s point of view: I had and still have no idea what my father thought or suffered.
What did really happen? It’s a constant but almost always unanswerable question. In my latest novel, Rooted in Dishonour, mistaken points of view cost dear. The most skilful novelists are those who can assemble a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and still keep the reader onside, still maintaining that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is the essential ingredient of all successful fiction. A few, like Le Carré, have the rare capability of achieving this while shifting the reader’s perception of the characters over time: thus, if you read all of the Smiley novels in sequence, you begin by thinking that Karla is the devil incarnate and end by realising that he is ‘just’ a man, with all the depth as well as the imperfections that entails. And it begs the question, what really happened? If we didn’t have to ponder that, there’d be no reason for reading any novel and, therefore, no reason for writing it.
I’ve been a fan of John le Carré’s for a very long time, especially of the Smiley novels. I know that Smiley had to be put out to grass when the Cold War finished, but – I imagine like le Carré himself – I mourned his eclipse and secretly I’ve always hoped that Smiley will enjoy some kind of reinvention one day. In the meantime, his creator has had to tackle the problem of how to write about espionage and amoral acts of skulduggery without the wonderfully ambiguous backdrop of East-West relations to sustain him. (This leads me to hope, in passing, that perhaps in some future book he may take as his topic Putin’s Russia and its significance for present-day relations between the East and the West.)
Meantime, I’ve been a faithful reader of the post-Smiley le Carré novels, but I have to confess that, although every one of them is skilfully put together and tells a cracking tale of intrigue, mystery, vice and complicated modern moral issues, I haven’t enjoyed any of them as much as the chronicles of the lugubrious George Smiley and his flawed but semi-likeable nemesis, Karla. It was therefore not exactly with misgiving, but with a resigned knowledge of knowing more or less what to expect, that I began to read A Delicate Truth.
Oh me of little faith! This novel is a masterpiece. It begins in Gibraltar, with a man who is only half in the know masquerading as someone called ‘Paul’. He has been persuaded to carry out an assignment that seems to consist of very little except several days of near-terminal boredom spent in a seedy hotel, followed by one burst of swift, strenuous activity, handsome remuneration and repatriation. Paul is mostly in the dark about the true nature of the assignment, yet he accomplishes it (rather gracelessly), picks up his financial reward and goes home to his comfortable middle-class, Middle England existence. He is a little uneasy that something about the assignment didn’t exactly go as planned, but he soon persuades himself to forget about it.
Fast forward three years. Paul’s identity and his home circumstances are gradually revealed. Another man who was involved in the assignment turns up at his house and his club and then mysteriously ‘commits suicide’. Paul is challenged with some uncomfortable assertions about what it was that went wrong in Gibraltar and has to swallow his cowardice and inclination to turn a blind eye to find out if they are true.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, as that would spoil it for those who have not yet read the book – which I recommend them to do at the earliest opportunity. I’ll therefore conclude by saying that A Delicate Truth shows le Carré in top form again. He’s created a subtle and complex group of characters who together grapple with that most fundamental of issues, the nature of good and evil. As I’ve said, it’s a masterpiece.
Nevertheless, I’d still love to believe that one day I might enjoy a further dose of old Smiley!
The Holy Thief is the third of the three books that I bought at Bookmark when I was in Spalding. I left this one until last because my son, who specialised in twentieth century Eastern European history at university, put me off it slightly by saying that novelists who write about Stalinist Russia never quite get the historical backdrop right. However, having begun this novel towards the end of last week, I found that I couldn’t put it down and finished it within a couple of days.
William Ryan has obviously researched the Stalinist period very well. He offers a select bibliography at the end of the novel, among which are the works of Orlando Figes, whose social history The Whisperers also made a great impression on me when I read it. He doesn’t obtrude his knowledge of the period (a skill that I always think is the hallmark of a distinguished writer), but in my view – and of course neither Ryan nor I really knows! – he has captured perfectly the seediness, uncertainty and underlying paranoia that permeated the whole of life when Stalin was the Russian leader. Very skilfully, over the course of the novel, he also manages to convey the futility of many of the brutal and savage actions carried out in the name of the state by the Stalinist regime. Lives are snatched or broken, but to what effect? It is as if the waters close over the people and events that have been targeted and the whole monstrous machine just creaks on as it did before, a savage animal against which the only defence is to remain in the shadows.
Captain Alexei Korolev, the hero of this novel, is an interesting take on the protagonist of the Russian crime thriller. He owes something to Le Carré’s George Smiley, but of course he belongs to an earlier part of the twentieth century and he is much more establishment than Smiley: he is a policeman, not a spy. Smiley already knows that ideologies are tawdry, slippery things and destroy the soul and that being a devotee of the truth – if the truth can be defined – is dangerous; Korolev, who has been a successful CID officer, has to discover this inch by inch, the hard way, by becoming the victim himself. In the process, he comes face to face with the terrifying yet essentially faceless members of the organised criminals who control Moscow’s criminal underworld.
If I have any criticism to make of this novel, it is that in places it is almost not dark enough. Ryan certainly doesn’t go in for gratuitous violence or sensationalism, which I applaud, but sometimes his writing seems to convey a sense of optimism that is not warranted by the period and events of which he writes. In Figes’ The Whisperers, there are no good people left: all those he describes know that they cannot rely on friends, family members, even sons or daughters, not to betray them; whereas in The Holy Thief morality, generosity and even taking the risk of offering casual kindness to strangers still prevail amongst people principled enough and brave enough not to allow their standards to drop. But that is where fiction diverges from reality: a novel is not a meaningless collection of events: it has to carry some message to the reader. Stalin’s Terror, on the other hand, had no proper meaning, no message: it simply channelled the crazed paranoia of one very powerful man into the brutal gratification of his sadistic henchmen.
This is undoubtedly a potent read and one that I enjoyed very much!